|As a freelance journalist, P. Sainath has spent the last 9 years in rural ares, covering a number of topics related to development - caste, poverty, agriculture, etc. He spends between 200 and 250 days of each year in the villages he chronicles. Royalties from the sale of his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought are used entirely to promote rural journalism, so that people in the villages can tell their own unfiltered stories. The following notes are excerpted from his talk at the Association for India's Development (AID)'s annual meeting in College Park, Maryland in late May 2001. Excerpts from the Q & A session following the talk are also included.|
May-June 2001: You would not know that there is an agricultural crisis in India, from looking at the print media. The growth rate of food production in India is falling, from 3.5% in the 1980s to 1.8% in the 1990s. Investment in agriculture has collapsed. NSSOI (The National Sample Survey Organization of India) reveals that the 1990s saw the lowest level of employment generation since independence (less than 0.7 percent annually in rural India). Non-farm employment doubled during the 1980s, but this too is stagnating now. Rural development outlays are down, and rural credit has collapsed, leading to faster rates of land loss among marginal farmers.
Eenadu, the biggest newspaper in Andhra, has its largest advertisements not from Information Technology companies, which despite the hype lag their counterparts in Karnataka and Tamilnadu considerably. Instead, Eenadu is filled with advertisements from banks announcing the auction of the property of the small and marginal farmers who can no longer pay their debts. 100,000 crores are owed to the banks in India. 62,000 crores of that debt is from 800+ large debtors not one of whom has ever been followed and prosecuted, but the jewelry and household furniture of a small farmer is auctioned for a few thousand rupees. In Rajasthan, the poor have resorted to rotating hunger, choosing by turn members of the family who must go without food. Where is our sense of outrage?
The crisis states are AP, Rajasthan and Orissa. In the single district of Anantapur, in Andhra Pradesh, between 1997 and 2000, 1800+ people have committed suicides, but when the state assembly requested these statistics, only 54 were listed. [see April 29 and May 6 issues of The Hindu, for more details]. Since suicide is considered a crime in India, the district crime records bureaus list categories for suicide - unrequited love, exams, husbands' and wives' behavior, etc.; in Anantapur, the total from these categories was less than 5%. The largest number, 1061 people, were listed as having committed suicide because of "stomach ache". This fatal condition results from consuming Ciba-Geigy's pesticide, which the government distributes free, and is almost the only thing the rural poor can readily acquire!!
Even the normal sources of migratory work, which typically provide some employment to persons who are willing to displace themselves each year to take temporary jobs, are failing. For e.g., people from western Orissa regularly go to West Bengal, Andhra, and Punjab each year for migrant work, but this year so many people left Orissa looking for jobs that wherever they went the cost of labor collapsed, and many returned to Orissa, where the administration is unprepared for their unexpected return. [As an aside, holding elections in May is disenfranchising; it denies millions the right to vote because they typically migrate from their domiciled areas for labor at this time, and cannot vote].
Some of these changes are the result of WTO regulations, We removed Quantitative Restrictions on imports in April 2001 fully two years ahead of the time we are required to do so by the WTO! The portrayal of the Indian farmer as non-competitive is also sleight of hand; sensing the changing environment, the industrialized nations increased their subsidies 2-6 times in 1980s, and are now reducing them fractionally, portraying this as a scale-back of government support! It is a myth that the Indian farmer is not competitive. There is no level playing field in India. The free market is a farce. Who are the people who negotiated on India's behalf at the WTO? What positions do they now hold? During the earlier round of GATT negotiations, we saw that many who allegedly represented India instead sold the country down the drain, and took plush jobs in the west for their own personal gain.
In India, people have the perception of "subsidies" being given to farmers, and this is one of the reasons why the urban folks think that farmers need to improve their act. But the vast majority of this subsidiy is given not to the farmers themselves but to fertilizer producers. The "farmers" who get this subsidy are called Birla, Tata and Ambani! Also, this is given in such a way that the more you produce the lower the rate of subsidy, and the smaller amounts you produce, the more higher the rate of subsidy. In theory, this should support the "small farmers", but in fact the large producers overproduce and understate their output, just so they can avail of the higher rate of subsidy.
The poor farmer is sometimes portrayed as uncompetitive, and that he lives off subsidies; many people take the view that if he cannot compete with global players, he should try something other than farming. But the reality is that Indian farmers are asked to compete with U.S. farmers who get $35,000 in subsidies per farmer! The European Union conducts its milk and cheese bonfire each year, destroying surplus which might depress prices if released in local markets instead. With markets forced open by trade agreements, that produce is dumped in India (and elsewhere), and it kills the livelihood of the everyday milkman.
Still, the WTO notwithstanding, many failures must be attributed to unilateral policies from the Indian government itself. India has declared a "surplus" of 45 million tonnes, which is really excess unsold stock. Pakistan and Bangladesh together claim a surplus of 5 million tonnes. With the largest number of absolute poor in the world now living in subcontinental Asia, how is this possible? The answer is that the surplus is built on the declining purchasing power of the poor. If the grain produced in India is divided by the minimum per capita requirement of food, the surplus vanishes! The claim of "food security" is frivolous, and ignores the fact that some people don't eat! Between 91-94 food prices were increased by 100%. The current govt increased by another 100%. What is the expected effect on marginalized farmers? Hunger.
Despite this, the surplus food isn't really available to offset emergencies. For the most part, it is improperly stored. Large transport junctions like Jhansi and Itarsi have enormous heaps of "exposed" food stocks, these are stored at the carrying cost of Rs.1500 a ton. But while we are "looking after" this stuff, it is uncovered, exposed to the elements, and rotting. As a result, we have declining per-capita availability in grains, and the healthiest rat population in the world! As each harvest comes along, the govt buys the grain, does not release into the market, and does not care for it properly either. The first consignments of food we sent (with much fanfare) to Iran and Iraq were returned, because they had gone bad. Whereas the media covered the announcement of the exports in great detail, their return was barely reported.
With high levels of malnutrition on the one hand, and large food stocks that are inadequately stored on the other hand, any sensible government should have created a food-for-work programme. The Rajasthan government has one, except that in the middle of a serious shortage of water, the state introduced a food-for-work programme that includes the construction of a golf course!
The obsession with export markets that drives government policy is extracting a heavy toll in unexpected ways. Fish farming/prawn farming for export has resulted in the closure of many rice mills. One acre of paddy supports 150 days of labor (man/woman), 40 days of watching over the fields to thwart birds, etc. To tend one acre of aqua field, on the other hand, takes far less labor. When the government asked oil farmers to increase the yield they responded with great harvests. However, then government then turned around and imported a large amount of palm oil, depressing the prices that farmers obtained for their bounty.
When the governments made the decision to promote aqua-culture or oilseed cultivation, there was no input sought from the poor themselves, and no assurance of reward for their embracing these policies. The media has made heroes of both the incompetent and the corrupt. People like Yashwant Sinha or Ahluwalia never asked the rural poor for permission to make deals on their behalf, and have not cared to examine the impacts of the deals they have made on the lives of the rural poor. Indeed, the people sitting in decision-making rooms owe more than half of the debt to the treasury. They are not the poor! Palaniappan Chidambaram is now portrayed as a respectable opinion-maker on the economy, notwithstanding the fact that as Union minister, he was forced to resign in the Fairgrowth scandal, and even prior to this he had concealed his conflicting interest in the Enron issue.
But who are the poor? 40% are landless agricultural laborers. 45% are small and marginal farmers. They are net purchasers of grain! 7.5% are rural artisans. Everyone else is "others". Eighty five percent of the poor have problems directly connected with land, the one issue that has not been on the government's agenda. Even the rural artisan is generally landless. The bulk of Indian poverty is in 7 or 8 states, and in particular regions within those states. East UP, interior Orissa, Telengana, the Hyderabad-Karnatak region. Within these, the caste face of poverty is apparent. 50-55% of the population in SC/ST communities is poor, whereas 36-39% of the overall population is classified as poor. The more feudal the region the deeper the poverty. The bulk of the poor are women and children. The majority of agricultural laborers are women, and overwhelmingly Dalit women.
Poverty in India is also defined in a strange manner, and conceals even greater depths of deprivation than is usually reported. The definition is that if per capita income permits the purchase 2400 calories of food, then one is not poor. The emphasis is on income, not actual purchasing power. The reasons date back to the constitution, and to the original vision of the state as socialist. Unlike the constitutions of most democracies, the Indian constitution includes substantial language on justice, and from this view, the state is urged to provide much for the people - housing, health, education, etc. On the assumption that the state meets this obligation, one can treat income as being available chiefly for food-procurement, and one may be considered poor if income is inadequate to purchase food But in reality, much of the income is needed to obtain the things the state should provide; notwithstanding this, the old definition of poverty is nonetheless retained!
Government mechanisms to address poverty are also entirely arbitrary. For instance, the poor are categorized into those below the poverty line (BPL) and those above the poverty line (APL), but not well off. Quotas are set arbitrary, and even brothers in the same family might belong to different categories. These categories are also pegged to particular income levels without any basis. For e.g., people are given certificates listing their income is Rs.4800, even when they earn far less, because the government claims it has abolished poverty below that level!! Rather than have policies address reality, the government distorts the truth to create the appearance of meaningful policy! The desperately poor people are now selling their BPL cards!
The government's indifference is most obvious when it needs to make the case that it cares. The most evident example of this is that official estimates of poverty always take a dive before elections - I call this Sainath's Law. Right before the recently concluded elections, for example, it was announced that nationwide poverty is now at 26%. The same institutions that put out 9 reports in a row that suggest little change in poverty suddenly produce a 10th one that celebrates the grand success of poverty reduction! Why, before the 1996 elections, poverty levels were down to 19%, from twice that figure only weeks ago! If true, that would constitute the greatest achievement in history, let alone Indian social reform! Expectedly, weeks after the election, poverty levels were back up in the mid 30% range. The Govt. of India Economic surveys freely admit the fallacies of these reports.
Private think tanks are also in the "poverty" business these days. Studies of purchasing power conducted for transnational groups are turned into "poverty" reports, with little regard to the fact that they were not designed to study poverty in the first place. Public policy flows from the acceptance of such nonsense as research. Sometimes, the claims are less than hazy, they are outright false. One study, for instance, claimed to have covered 30,000 households and tracked over 300 parameters within each!
Question and Answer Session
|As the discussion dragged into the third hour and beyond, with Sainath a continuing mine of information to the audience, it was resolved that specific questions would be taken up, in the interest of time!|
Why not give capitalism a chance; after all a lot of other systems have failed. And why blame the WTO for the failings of the govt?
The WTO and GATT type of agreements are very undemocratic. Corporate leaders make policy, not the elected representatives. When people in Geneva draw up regulations, some local panchayat leader cannot be asked to address the consequences of those decisions, when his/her input was not sought in making the decision itself. The idea of different systems is superficial, the most striking aspect of free-market capitalism is that it has benefited the exact same people who gained from socialism! It isn't unexpected, either. After all, the South Commission report was signed by Manmohan Singh 90 days before the liberalization process, can he really have changed his views that much in that time? Political opportunism and media management have provided the appearance of different choices and systems, without any meaningful changes in outcomes.
What sort of medium can reverse the desensitization of the non-poor to the misery of those who are suffering?
The Indian intelligentsia have always had an association with the poor. From Gautama to Gandhi. There are major currents in the world and these cannot be escaped. But some choices can be made. Those who own the media have a vested interest. Take the Rs 1 at which the Times of India is sold, for example. The cost of producing it is Rs.7.50, and the distributors pay about 0.57, and only 0.43 is gained from the readers on the basis of content. The rest is obtained from advertisements.
At the same time, we must not abandon mainstream journalism. The Indian press and its freedoms have been won at great cost, and boast an extraordinary tradition. Every freedom fighter of repute doubled as a journalist, informing the public. Speaking for myself, I will not cede this high ground; it is extremely important that mainstream journalism include the true stories of India. Everyone should know what the freedom struggle was for, who fought, who died, who gained the benefits? In the ToI I did a report called Forgotten Heroes. My next project is about the last remaining Freedom Fighters in India. For all its flaws the Constitution of India is a great social contract, that we should reflect on.
Why is the media indifferent?
A: The readers are sensible, and in most publications, the Letters to the Editor column is the most sensible one. Media is sometimes simply unable to identify indicators of change. Weight loss clinics exploded in urban India, the media called it the war against obesity. But rural Indians were trying not to lose weight! The automobile revolution - despite the hype, with 3 television programs a week, there are only 5 million autos on the roads. But the rate of growth of sales of bicycles fell dramatically, and no one cared, even though it is a far better indicator of the state of the nation.
What were some positive reactions to the publication of your book?
A: It is not that I write articles and the world changes! But there were a few good things that resulted. The Indira Aawaas Yojna program was changed to allow people to design the houses built for them in ways relating to their habits and culture, rather than force them to live in uniformly designed housing that was often inappropriate to their needs. The Rajasthan story killed the golf course [see above]. Many of the rules of Panchayati Raj were changed to stop people from hijacking the Panchayat. On a more personal level, the success of the book has opened doors for me, that I use to exhort influential people.
Have droughts, or other natural calamities, been responsible for problems in rural India very much?
A drought makes things worse, but doesn't cause them. The agricultural crisis cannot cause the drought. The rainfall data shows no variation across 100 years in some 'drought' areas.
Tell us about things that are working.
Microcredit has received a lot of attention, what is your view of this?
Microcredit is a tool. Every ten years the lending institutions get a new fad; the fad of the last decade has been microcredit. Is it good? Yes. But credit is not liberating. It is not transformative. It works when it is local and micro-managed by the participation of the lender. Not when it is overarching. Grameen Bank for example, for all its touted success, worked on a fairly small scale compared to the needs of Bangladesh. The Grameen Bank and all its lending affiliates accounted for less than 0.6% of the credit in Bangladesh.
How effective has land reform been?
The fastest rate of growth on agriculture in India is currently in West Bengal. So land reforms did help. Land reforms may not be solution but it can give a path to the solution. Still, across registered surplus land held by the government, less than 2% has been distributed. But what is the surplus land the government has? In every village, there is a patch which the Common Property of the Village, but only in name. The CP Resources are denied to laborers at the whim of landowners, as punishment. Landless people need the commons to use as latrines for women, graze their cattle, etc., and treating the CPR as the private domain of the powerful has defeated this reserve. Also CPR is now being given away. When the tractor took over Haryana the number of people needed to work the land went down, and with harvester combines, the numbers are even less. Common property lands are being privatized. Delhi's farmhouse culture is entirely built on common property lands. IAS and IFS colonies routinely come up on such lands.
What does the Indian farmer think of GE crops?
A: It's difficult to give answers about people who span several strata of society. Farmers themselves have historically attempted to grow various kinds of crops. The difference is that if a farmer does it he/she lives with it. However, if a MNC does it will impact half of the population. The scale of things now is different, and we are not always sure of the health effects of the various things that go into crops. Some farmers are willing to try it, because a lot of 'serious' people are telling them it is a great thing. A lot of farmers are also paying the price for their embrace of the idea, though. There is some demand now for public accountability and debate now, the technology needs more public scrutiny.
How are urban poor compared to rural poor?
A: The urban poor are typically the rural poor who have moved. The urban poor end up paying more tax than even middle class. Electricity in many municipalities, for example, is charged according to the date on which the premises were constructed. So, the middle-classes, who have had their apartments and houses for many decades, pay lower rates, where the shanties pay a lot more, even though they don't get the power nearly as often. This is the free market turned on its head, where you supply the lower-rate payer first! The urban poor may be more visible to us, but their numbers are much lower than that of the rural poor.
What can we do to alleviate all these problems you have discussed?
I make no great claim to wisdom. Simple solutions for complex problems can not solve them. Once great starting point that anyone can do is to sensitize himself/herself, and introspect. The fact that we have all gathered here means that we are at least attempting solutions and sensitizing ourselves, that's a start. There is systematic suppression, and we must open our eyes to it. There are 70 children in class 1 for every 100 who should be. 35 of them have dropped out by class 5, only 10 remain by class 8. Fewer than 5 complete high school. In many schools, children are seated according to caste at midday meal schemes. This should shame us. What we can do is sensitize ourselves, and be aware of the privilege we have. Dalit bastis are always on the southern outskirts because rivers typically flow north-south and the poorer sections are given access only to the tail-waters.
Looking inward and being honest with answers is important. The President's speech at Republic Day in 2000 was a great eye-opener, the first time that any president has bothered to honestly examine his role in the constitutional process, and ask meaningful questions. Supportive communities here can help in many ways. The most direct answer is to recognize that there are those who are already in the fight to protect the poor and to bring some measure of opportunity to their lives, and for us to join them and support their needs.
Research and learn a lot more about Patents, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR's), etc. It is very hard, intensive work with a lot to learn and absorb. A proper understanding of these rules will help develop solutions, and to be watchful for their abuse. Developing an Indian version of Lexus-Nexus would be very valuable, too. The need to obtain related information on a number of topics is very high.
How can we contact you?
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